South Africa: The Second Transition – Much ado about nothing?

There has been much hype around the discussion on the policy document of the African National Congress, titled The Second Transition?: Building a National Democratic Society and the balance of forces in 2012. There has been much discussion around the title of the document rather than its content.

The fact that since the release of these documents there has been a hullaballoo, followed by a chain reaction of biased analysis by all sections of society, has given proof to the assertion that this is an ideologically contested terrain, and it would be foolish for young Marxists to allow this debate to cool off without contributing to it and, if need be, providing an alternative. This article is one of the many to follow that will discuss in detail the content of the policy documents of the ANC and de-mystify concepts therein in the run up to the – by its own admission – watershed 53rd National Conference.

Balance sheet of South Africa

As a prelude, the authors of this policy document make this assertion: [Section 1, Paragraph 4] “The National Planning Commission in 2010 drew attention to the fact that despite the achievements we made in our first two decades of democracy, the persistence of widespread poverty and extreme inequality in a Middle-Income country poses a major threat to social cohesion and nation building. Its implicit conclusion was that a business-as-usual approach will result in South Africa failing to meet a great many of its objectives.”

It is important for an organization to make a balance sheet of its achievements and shortfalls, so as to arrive at the necessary conclusions and develop appropriate policies to build up the achievements and avoid possible future shortfalls.

There is little doiubt that there are valuable achievements that have been recorded by the ANC in the past 18 years, in light of a negotiated settlement. For the first time in 1994, a majority of citizens enjoyed the right to assembly, the freedom to express their own opinions, form, and or affiliate to any political party of their choice and enjoy universal suffrage. Several social concessions were also won by the majority, with over 95% of South Africans gaining access to clean water, 77% gaining access to sanitary facilities, an improvement from 55% in 1994 and 77% gaining access to electricity, an increase from 51% in 1994.

However, it is also true to say that these social concessions have been to a large extent, undermined by the rising cost of living, the rising unemployment rate and the widening wage gap. This has caused some of the biggest protests, with over 1.3 million workers going on strike yearly and over 40% of municipalities witnessing service deliver protests.

The fact is, even though many have won access to these essential utilities, many cannot afford them, hence almost 5 million people have been experiencing water cut-offs due to continuous price-hikes.

With these figures at hand, it would be unreal for the authors of this document to believe that South Africa is a “middle-income society”.

South Africa, according to the Gini coefficient, is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The country, officially, has a 24.5 percent unemployment rate and the same figure for township youth is 57%. Those living below the poverty line of $1.25 (about R10) a day are 26.2% of the population and 60 percent of children are pushed out of the schooling system before they reach grade 12 because of obvious economic reasons.

Surely these cannot be figures of a middle-income society!

The statistics released by the South African Institute of Race Relations show that 3.3 million of the unemployed population are young people, African women being the hardest affected as 63% of them are unemployed and unemployment among Africans stands at 57% compared to 47% coloureds, 23% Indians and 21% Whites.

Surely these cannot be figures of a middle-income society!

Despite the great wealth underneath the soil of South Africa, the country is placed in the top ten of the most unequal societies in the world. Almost half the population survives on less than 8% of national income. On the other side, in 2009, on average, each of the top 20 paid directors in the JSE-listed companies earned 1728 times the average income of a South African worker.

Surely these cannot be figures of a middle-income society!

The document further remarks [Section 1: Paragraph 13]: “There is little contest that the main successes of the first 15 years of the new South Africa was our peaceful and thoroughgoing political and democratic transformation.”

It is true that one of the greatest victories for the South African masses was the introduction of democracy; however the introduction of Sunset clauses created a major barrier for the future. These clauses made it possible for the apartheid regime to accept the introduction of democracy, provided that the capitalist system was preserved. With the introduction of the Sunset clauses in the constitution, protecting ill-gotten private property, the old administration managed to prevent the Mass Democratic Movement from achieving its objectives contained in the Freedom Charter.

The Freedom Charter being the main political program of the ANC, it would be a grave mistake to assert that we have concluded the political transformation whilst central points in the charter have not been realised. Chief amongst these is the battle cry for many freedom fighters and young martyrs; “South Africa belongs to those who live in it.” The way in which the Charter envisaged this being achieved was further explained: “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.”

Considering the above figures, does South Africa belong to those who live in it? Or is the old ruling capitalist class still in power, with the addition of some token black faces in the administration boards of the companies?

In justifying this, the authors say: [Section 1, Paragraph 14] “...Thus, while the global situation impacted on our negotiations, the decisions on the form, content and compromises of the negotiated settlement were taken by South Africans.”

Here the authors are being economical with the truth, downplaying the fact that the collapse of apartheid came as a result of decades of mass struggle, and that the real forces behind it were the oppressed masses who, in opposition to all probability, stepped up the struggle between the late 70s and early 90s. It was the vigorous struggles of the masses, particularly the leading role played by the organised working class, that won South Africa its bourgeois democracy, not the global situation or negotiating skills of the ANC leadership as some would like us to believe.

Even though democracy is important to the working class, it is only important for as long as it is able to address the three major problems affecting a majority of the population, namely: inequality, unemployment and poverty. No matter how democratic a capitalist state is, it is unable to address such, as the most important decisions, those pertaining to the economy, are still taken by an unelected and unaccountable minority.

To affirm this, the preface of the 2002 Strategy and Tactics of the ANC notes that: “Contemporary South Africa is often held as a model of effective capitalism: corporate profits are high; the banks are overflowing with money; returns to individual capitalists, in the form of salaries and share options, are exceptional; there is a massive growth of a... black middle class. On the side of the class divide, the workforce has grown demonstrably over the last decade and there is a huge reserve army of labour to feed industry and commerce.”

This is further confirmed by the state of South Africa today which is characterised by unfathomable contradictions that the ANC admits above. It is true that a handful of black people have benefited from the democratic dispensation, but for the majority, the struggle continues. To a majority of us, the ‘first transition’ is yet to give qualitative results.

By its own admission, the ANC, in the preface of the Strategy and Tactics (2002) correctly asserts that these challenges “...require the elimination of the legacy of apartheid super-exploitation and inequality, and the redistribution of wealth and income to benefit society as a whole”

Can the current economic system ‘eliminate the legacy of apartheid super-exploitation and inequality’? The answer is NO!

The Apartheid government being a political superstructure that was founded on a super-exploitative economic pedestal, its demise had to correlate with the demise of its foundation. Only reformist-minded people deny that, left untouched, the capitalist system necessarily reproduces the fundamental class (and associated racial, gender and other) inequalities that characterize all national capitalist economic systems. South Africa was no exception; hence the acclaimed achievements of the ‘first transition’ have been undermined by the inherent economic contradictions.

Is a mixed economy an alternative?

After two decades of following a so-called “mixed economic system” which has elevated a handful of black capitalists who have formed an alliance with the white capitalist class, by its own admission, the ANC government has insufficiently redistributed national wealth equally.

In a move to address such, the ANC, in this document says; [Section 1, Paragraph 178]: “we remain committed to a mixed economy with state, cooperative and other forms of social ownership co-exiting with a vibrant private sector. How we will achieve the optimal mix in all sectors, but (sic) especially in mining and finance, must (sic) and will be part of our discussions on economic policy towards policy conference.”

The above policy conviction is not clear and coherent on different levels, but it exposes a shocking reality: a party that is adamant on using the same system with the hope of getting different results. The authors of the document agree that the mixed economy system has to a large extent failed. By frequently quoting from the Diagnostic report of the National Planning Commission, the document says: “the economy has failed to create jobs at the pace necessary to reduce extremely high unemployment, and the education system has failed to ensure that equalised public spending on schooling translates to improved education for poor black children.”

The document further contradicts itself by saying [section, Paragraph 171]: “The spatial legacy of apartheid continues to weigh on the entire country. In general, the poorest people live in remote rural areas. In the cities, the poorest live far from places of work and economic activity. Although it was identified as a particular focus for attention even before 1994, the situation has probably been aggravated since then, with many more people now living in poorly located settlements. This adds to the challenges, already discussed, of providing infrastructure in support of economic activity. Reversing the effects of spatial apartheid will be an ongoing challenge in the decades ahead.”

Just a few paragraphs later, the same authors “remain committed to a mixed economy system” that they had accused of aggravating spatial apartheid. Is this not a case of ideological inconsistency? Have the authors selectively forgotten their prelude, which correctly asserted: “...Its implicit conclusion was that a business-as-usual approach will result in South Africa failing to meet a great many of its objectives.”

To increase employment and growth, amongst other things, the authors propose reducing regulatory burden in areas where the private sector is the main investor. By regulatory burden, the authors mean labour rights that are currently enjoyed by the workers. In general the authors call for a reduction of labour rights to appease the private sector.

The only way forward is permanent revolution!

“While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible... it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power…” Karl Marx, Address to the Communist League (1850)

In his address to the Communist League, Marx outlined the need for the working class to make the revolution permanent. In essence, such revolution consists of the working class maintaining a revolutionary and independent approach to politics before and after the struggle which brings the bourgeois democrats to power.

In this instance, the South African working class under the leadership South African Communist Party, in the ANC-led alliance, must maintain a revolutionary approach, that is, to struggle for the expropriation of the possessing classes and winning state power. The workers must organize autonomously, because throughout the process of political change, the bourgeois will, as Marx correctly asserts, seek to entangle the workers in a party in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the working class may not be presented. Such a unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the working class. The working class would lose all its hard won independent position and be reduced once more to a mere accessory of official bourgeois democracy.

In order to advance further, first we need clarity. Within the limits of capitalism the fundamental problems of the South African masses cannot be addressed, as has been amply demonstrated by the experience of the last 18 years. Only by fully implementing the nationalization clause of the Freedom Charter, that is, the expropriation of the capitalist class, can the majority of the people start to democratically plan the country’s wealth so as to overcome the legacy of the past.

The Communist Party leadership, instead of tail ending the pro-capitalist leadership of the ANC, should be organizing a fightback within the ranks of the movement (COSATU, ANC and other mass organizations) to return to its revolutionary roots and traditions. What is needed is not so much a “second transition”, but a genuine revolution to put an end to the rotten capitalist system in South Africa and the world.